Tag Archives: Vocabulary

Why Teach Vocabulary?

Let’s face it. Instructional time is precious. There is never enough time to teach the content students didn’t quite master last year, to teach the skills and standards they need to master this year, and to maybe throw in a little something, just for fun. So, why “waste” time intentionally teaching vocabulary?

This post will….

  1. Explain the importance of teaching vocabulary explicitly
  2. Help you understand which words to teach
  3. Give practical tips for teaching vocabulary in any content

Why is teaching vocabulary important?

First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing. There are actually four different ways a student can master a given vocabulary term: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening and speaking are both oral language, and reading and writing are both written language. Children begin to develop oral language skills long before they come to school, but for most students, written language skills begin to develop around the time they enter school. Generally speaking, a student’s largest vocabulary is listening. Students can understand words before they can use them in their own speaking, but the two are connected. In the same way, most students have a larger reading vocabulary than written vocabulary, but the two support each other. More on that in later posts.

Later we’ll get into specific strategies for improving language skills in the four areas. For now, the reasons for teaching vocabulary explicitly mostly overlap.

  1. Knowing the correct word helps students express themselves clearly and be understood – in both speaking and writing. Have you ever witnessed a two-year old’s temper tantrum? Likely, they are expressing their frustration in the only way they know how. They have an idea in their head but they don’t have the word. Then, an adult caregiver comes along and asks, “Would you like me to read this book to you?” The two-year-old calms down, and repeats, “Read.” Now they have the word they need and the frustration passes. Older students may not have temper tantrums, but they still feel frustration when they can’t make themselves understood. Vocabulary instruction helps them have the words to express their ideas and knowledge. Vocabulary = Being Understood
  2. The reverse is also true. When we teach complex concepts (like equivalent fractions), explicit teaching of the term leads to great understanding of the concept. When students understand that equivalent is similar to, but different from, equal, they begin to grasp the nuances of equivalent fractions. Vocabulary – Greater Understanding
  3. Explicit vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension. That has been well documented in study after study. And it makes common sense. Obviously, students cannot comprehend a text if they do not know the meaning of key words. It has also been well documented that students LEARN new vocabulary through consistent reading. Wide reading = Higher Vocabulary, and Higher Vocabulary = Wide Reading.

Vocabulary = Being Understood
Vocabulary = Greater Understanding
Vocabulary = Wide Reading
Wide Reading = Vocabulary

What to teach?

So, the Oxford English Dictionary defines about 600,000 words. But, that’s not all of the words in English. Some estimates say there are over a million words in English, and it’s ever growing. Do you remember a time you didn’t know the word meme? I do. It was invented after I was born, but I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was out of the mouth of my 14 year old son – probably in 2020. English is a living language – one of the beautiful things about it.

This causes a problem for teachers. Even if we stick with the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and forget all the new words being created, we could never hope to teach them all. The good news is, we don’t have to. In 2002, Beck, Kucan and McKeown published Bringing Words to Life. In the book, they explained that teachers should focus on teaching Tier Two words. Check out these blog posts for more in depth information on Tier Two words.

For now, here is a quick overview.

Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.

Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category.  Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught as needed.

There are about 7,000 Tier Two word families. If you teach a word from each word family, and help students make connections to the other words in the word family, the whole process becomes more manageable. 7,000 divided by 13 years of schooling is 538.46 word families a year. Still lofty, but doable.

From Theory to Practice

Now we’ve come full circle. You understand why explicit vocabulary instruction is important, but I’m sure you’re asking yourself the question we started with. Where do I find the time?

The answer is simple. Consistent, easy routines that you weave throughout your day, in multiple content areas, will help you explicitly teach the vocabulary your students need to know. This FREE e-book gives you details on each routine.

Grab the book and then implement these strategies in your classroom today!

To increase oral language, use these routines:

  1. Capture the Word
  2. Fist of Five
  3. Examples and Non-Examples
  4. Hot Seat

To increase written language, use these routines:

  1. Interactive Notebooks
  2. Capture the Word
  3. Word Wonder
  4. Word Detective
  5. Catergories
  6. Tic-Tac-Toe
  7. Pictionary

These simple routines take little to no prep, and can be implemented in math class, science class, social studies…. Grab the FREE e-book today and give it a try!

Click the image to grab the FREE e-book!

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Tiered Vocabulary Instruction – Properties of Matter

We are about half way through our focus on Matter in Science, and I am feeling pretty good about how things are going. I can tell that my students are beginning to understand the important concepts of the unit because they are using the key vocabulary in their speaking and writing, which means they “own” those words. As you know, if a student has a word for the concept, they likely also have the concept! In this blog post, I’m going to take you through some of the bends in the unit that have gotten my kiddos to this point.

What are the Three Tiers?

The three tiers are a way of thinking about the function of language as you choose vocabulary words to teach your students. Beck and McKeown outlined the tiers in their book “Bringing Words to Life”. For more in depth information on that, be sure to check out this blog post. One important thing to remember is that learning the vocabulary words involves learning to use the words, but not necessarily how to spell them. That is a different goal and different words should be chosen for spelling instruction.

Definition of each Tier

Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.

Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category.  Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught.

Words to Teach

So, the bulk of vocabulary instruction should be Tier Two and Tier Three words, with the majority of time spent on Tier Two Words. The best time to teach Tier Three words is right before a student needs them. For example, if a word is going to be useful in a science lab or a non-fiction text, teach it that day, right before students need it. Word Cards are awesome for that! With our Matter unit, we spent two days on property of matter stations. Many of the target vocabulary words are Tier Three, so I put the Matter Word Cards on the whiteboard and introduced them and also put them at the property of matter stations. By the end of the two days, the kids were using the vocabulary pretty comfortably in their conversation and lab books.

Examples of Tier Two Words

You may be wondering which of the words in the pictures are Tier Two, and which ones are Tier Three. Because I was introducing lab stations, most of the words pictured are Tier Three. In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, and dilute. Interestingly, several of the Tier Two words fall into that category because they are used in cooking, making them more common, and increasing the likelihood that they will be found in a written text.

Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, , mineral, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, dilute

Examples of Tier Three Words

In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation. I’m sure you noticed that most of these words are specific to Science, and rarely found outside of a Science text. These words are essential for students to learn so that they can unlock key Science content. Direct vocabulary instruction is the way to teach these words.

Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation

Instructional Strategies

Now that we’ve defined the words to teach and categorized them, let’s dive into instructional strategies for helping students LEARN them! This part of the blog is going to focus on the ways I’ve been teaching Tier Two words because you’ve already seen how I weave Tier Three instruction into the Science labs, introducing the key vocabulary as the students need it.

First, I used some of the images from the Matter Word Cards to plant seeds of curiosity about the content and vocabulary with a Gallery Walk. This picture is one of the stations, involving several photos, some with text, and students responded with their Noticings and Wonderings. Some of the target vocabulary began to emerge, but not much, so this activity served an an informal assessment, helping me know that direct vocabulary instruction was going to be essential in helping students master the content of the unit.

Next, students read “Everything Matters”. This article contains the foundational knowledge about States of Matter that students should have learned in third grade. To make sure that the foundation is strong, we used a Close Reading Protocol. The directions for the Close Reading protocol are included in the resource, but I did add explicit vocabulary instruction after the first read. I asked students to find, and highlight, these words in the text: mass, volume, substance, molecules, material, conditions, exist, density, compressed, states. We then used the context to predict the meaning of each word. Finally, I showed the students the Word Cards with the definitions and images on them, and we compared the definition with their prediction. Students completed the Comic Strip Performance Task from the resource, which gave them a great opportunity to use some of the words authentically in their writing!

Another strategy I use frequently is making Flapbooks in their Science notebooks. Students fold a page of the notebook in half, and then cut to the fold, making a flap. On the front of the flap, they write the word. Then I ask them if they have heard it before. Next, I ask them to predict the part of speech. Finally, I show them the definition and picture on the Word Card. Students copy the definition inside the flap. Later, they will make their own drawing on the other side of the flap to show their understanding of the word.

Additional Practice Strategies

I hope this has given you some ideas to try in your own classroom. As students learn the words, it’s important that they continue to practice them in a variety of contexts. Games such as Vocabulary Dominoes or I Have, Who Has? are fun ways to practice the target vocabulary. Crossword Puzzles and Word Searches are also fun ways to engage students with target vocabulary. And whole class games like Hot Seat can be a fun way to focus students on vocabulary too (the directions for that are in the resource!). And of course, frequent opportunities to read the words, hear the words and use the words orally and in writing are key!

Resources You Will Love

Check out these resources to help your own students master Matter! Just click!

Be sure to check out these blog posts for more resources and insights to grow your Vocabulary instruction!

  1. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers
  2. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How Can We Teach Them All?
  3. Using Word Walls to Teach Tier Two Vocabulary
  4. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – What Does the CCSS Say?
  5. Wander Words

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! The Three-Tiers

In 1987, Beck and colleagues introduced the idea of a three-tier system to guide teachers as they chose words to explicitly teach. Their purpose was to help teachers understand which words should receive the most explicit instruction. As they built the tiered system, they focused on the function of words in language. Basals and reading programs often have different goals when choosing words for explicit instruction. It’s important to note that Beck and McKeown’s work focuses on the function and meaning of the words, not the spelling or reading difficulty. As a teacher, you might choose to intentionally pre-teach a difficult word or a spelling pattern. That goal differs from the goals of vocabulary instruction, which include building familiarity with words and capacity to use a word in speaking and writing.

Tier One

According to “Bringing Words to Life“, Tier One words are “typically found in oral language”. These are words like dog, warm, run, talk, tired, party, look and swim. Because these are common in everyday speech, children are exposed to these words in a variety of contexts and with great frequency. This familiarity means that for a native speaker, these words rarely need to be taught. Keep in mind that we are focusing on students’ ability to use these words in their speaking and writing. You may want to explicitly teach how to spell these words, but that is a separate focus from building the capacity to use a word.

Tier Two

The second tier is where teachers should spend the majority of their instructional time. In this tier we find words that cross many domains and are used by mature language users. In my classroom we call these “scholarly words”. Tier Two words include words like circumstances, contradict, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect. One hallmark of Tier Two words is that they are seldom used in conversation, but are frequently found in written text. That means that students will seldom encounter these words in daily life. However, knowledge of these words can enhance a student’s ability to read grade level texts and also to express themselves exactly and precisely in their written work. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Mark Twain

You are probably wondering how many Tier Two words there are and which ones to focus on. Good question! Beck and McKeown helpfully analyze a study from Nagy and Anderson (1984) that focused on words in printed school English for third through ninth graders. They found that:

  • Good readers in this age range typically read about one million words per year.
  • There are about 88,500 word families in printed school English. A word family is a group of related words, for example introduce, introduced, introduction and reintroduce.
  • About half of these word families are extremely rare, meaning that even a voracious reader may encounter them only once in their lifetime.
  • About 15,000 word families would likely be encountered at least once every 10 years. Those are the words that Beck and McKeown have designated as Tier One and Tier Two words.
  • Approximately 8,000 of those word families fall in Tier One, so students will likely learn those words through repeated exposure and multiple contexts without explicit instruction.

So, that leaves us with about 7,000 word families to teach. If we start in kindergarten with a goal of teaching those words by ninth grade, that averages out to about 700 words. No problem! Right?

Well, not exactly. I’ve been at this for a long time, and in my best years I am able to get in about 500 words that I’ve taught explicitly. And if I’m perfectly honest, just because I’ve taught them explicitly, it doesn’t meant that my students have learned them. I would love to think differently, but that just isn’t realistic. Beck and McKeown suggest that if just 400 words are taught explicitly each year, that would have a significant affect on students’ ability to comprehend text at their grade level. In fact, they have research to prove that it does! That is a bit easier, but still a lofty goal! We’ll cover strategies to meet that goal in future blog posts.

Tier Three

Tier Three words are domain specific or extremely rare. These are the words that students need to understand science, social studies and math concepts. Think of words like quotient, epidermis and filibuster. These words generally don’t cross domains, so Beck and McKeown suggest teaching them in context. When a student encounters a Tier Three word, that is moment to teach it. The other type of Tier Three word is a very rare word, such as abecedarian. Quite possibly you’ve never encountered that word, and it’s likely your students won’t either. (Interestingly, an abecedarain is a novice learner.) Because these words don’t have great utility in the majority of texts, teachers should not spend a significant amount of instructional time on them. In my experience, that’s where we spend the majority of our vocabulary instruction time – just the reverse of what we should be doing!

So, how to reverse that trend and still find time to eat dinner with your family? My blog post, “Words, Words Wonderful Words! – Strategies to engage your students” will give you some of my tried and true ideas. And, Bringing Words to Life has lots more great ideas. Get the book! It’s really worth it!

Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How can we teach them all?

Well, the simple answer to that question is, we can’t. But what we can do is teach students the important words that they must know and teach them how to teach themselves all the other amazing words that they will encounter as they become literate speakers, readers and writers.

The best resource I’ve ever encountered for robust vocabulary instruction is Bringing Words to Life by Beck and McKeown. I read the first edition years ago when I was teaching at a school with a significant number of ELLs, and read the second edition last summer. Even if you’ve read the first edition, I recommend picking up the second. Both are a quick, fun read, and there is enough new material in the second edition to make it worth perusing.

So, why is this the best thing I’ve ever read about vocabulary acquisition? Well, because Beck and McKeown do a beautiful job of giving you a compelling case for why direct instruction in vocabulary is necessary in the first chapter and the second chapter helps you know which words to spend your time on. They categorize words into three Tiers, and suggest focusing instruction on the words in Tier Two, which they describe as “words (that) are likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of texts and in the written and oral language of mature language users”. For more on the three tiers, be sure to check out my post on the subject! The rest of the book talks about the practicalities of instruction – and hits things that both your students and your administrators will love! To get a flavor of their work, check out this pdf of a chapter from another of their books, Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2004.

My favorite chapter is on differentiation – something that I’m always working to do better. Their approach is directly embedded in Response to Intervention, or RTI and also suits my teaching style because the instructional strategies focus on giving students time to talk about the words in different contexts, to build nuanced understanding of word meanings and to give students opportunities to apply the words.

One strategy that I love for building background knowledge and vocabulary came from Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. He suggests wide reading on a topic because it will build both background knowledge and vocabulary. I’ve found that it can be difficult to find text sets that build naturally upon one another without being too repetitive or too boring. With careful vetting, it can be done. Since I enjoy writing, I’ve started writing text sets to build knowledge for my students. This link will take you to my TPT store where you can check out text sets covering Core Content like Democracy, and also things that are interesting to kids like Earthquakes and The Vikings. I purposefully structure the text set to build understanding of 12 – 15 key vocabulary terms using strategies borrowed largely from Beck and McKeown’s book, and I tie the terms together and build content knowledge with four texts per topic. Hopefully, the lesson plans will make this easy for you and fun for your students!

Building academic vocabulary is key for reading success, which in turn is key for all academic success. I try to teach my students about 500 words a year, but more importantly, I try to teach them how to teach themselves so the word learning continues. Leave a comment to let me know how you teach vocabulary. What works for you? What doesn’t work? I’d love to hear from you!